Last week, officials in Pennsylvania released a grand jury’s report detailing more than 1,000 cases of the sexual abuse of children by more than 300 priests in the Roman Catholic Church. The report goes into detail about what happened to these children; it’s extremely disturbing.
Much of the reporting about the pedophilia scandal has, quite rightly, focused on the appalling role church officials played in covering it up and their efforts to send offending priests to other parishes instead of turning them over to law enforcement.
But the report reminds us that in at least some occasions, government officials were implicated as well. The report points to a few cases in which law enforcement officials knew what was going on but failed to act.
In a case from Beaver County, officials with the district attorney’s office declined to press charges against a priest “in order to prevent unfavorable publicity” for the church. In Carbon County, a priest was found in possession of child pornography yet local officials did nothing, and church officials sent him away for “treatment.”
In Lawrence County, a credible report of child molestation was turned over to the police but never followed up on “out of respect for the priest.” In Pittsburgh, a county attorney actually joined forces with a church attorney to browbeat a mother who wanted to report instances of abuse against her two sons.
Perhaps most shockingly, the report details one incident from an unnamed county during which the district attorney’s office, after receiving a report of sexual offenses by a priest against a child, wrote a fawning letter to the bishop saying the office would be “most happy to co-operate with Your Excellency in reaching a resolution to this matter” and offering additional forms of help.
I should note that some of these cases go back several years. One hopes government officials would be more aggressive in pursuing complaints like this now – but there’s no guarantee of that. Two years ago, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office issued a report about pedophilia by priests in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. In several cases, county and city officials dropped investigations after pressure from the bishop, who openly boasted about his influence over local office-holders. .
In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, a disturbing form of deference by local officials toward church leaders created an atmosphere that made it next to impossible for victims to secure justice. Even now, church officials are doing all they can to stop Pennsylvania lawmakers from amending state law to make it easier for victims to seek redress – and getting support in the legislature. (Church officials also tried, unsuccessfully, to block release of the grand jury’s report.)
This incident should serve as a cautionary tale of the dangers of government officials allowing themselves to get too close to any church. As I noted two years ago in light of the release of the report about the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, religious groups sometimes break the law, and when they do that, only the state has the power and authority to hold them accountable.
That can’t happen if they two institutions are joined at the hip.